In the mid-1600s, long before European settlers descended on the shores of the Door Peninsula, the Potawatomi tribe of Native Americans used this narrow strip of sand as a portage—toting their birchbark canoes over their heads as they traveled from the waters of Sturgeon Bay to the waters of Lake Michigan.
By the 1850s, Door County had a few burgeoning communities, but in the words of early settler Joseph Harris, most of the peninsula was still a “howling wilderness” with no trails north of Sturgeon Bay, so travel from one end of the county to the other required a boat. Making the trip from Fish Creek on the western shore to Jacksonport on the eastern shore—only 9.5 miles over land—would have required a boat trip of more than 100 miles around the peninsula, braving both the whims of Mother Nature and dangerous currents of Death’s Door strait at the tip of the peninsula.
By 1860, Harris—the founding father of the Door County Advocate—was a vocal proponent of cutting through the narrow strip of land that separated the bay waters from the lake waters to create a shipping canal, which, he maintained, would not just benefit the lumber industry of Door County, but would also benefit all the communities in northeastern Wisconsin who relied on ships to transport and receive products—including the city of Green Bay.
To be fair, he wasn’t the first to suggest it. As noted in a 1879 Advocate report, Harris himself says that he took up the “old abandoned project for cutting a ship canal through from the head of Sturgeon Bay into Lake Michigan.”
According to a letter published in the Door County Advocate in 1878, a company was formed to establish a canal as early as 1830, but a “financial crash of that year put an end to the project, the land was sold for taxes, and the company disbanded.”
Harris’s arguments for the canal met with laughter and skepticism. According to Holand’s History of Door County, Harris was surrounded by “men of small means and little insight and Mr. Harris was laughed at as a dreamer.” None of this deterred him.
Instead, Harris began slowly and steadily laying the groundwork for the project. He traveled to Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia looking for wealthy and influential supporters, who also realized the value of shortening shipping routes. By 1864, Harris had used his influence as state senator to find enough supporters to form a charter for an eventual canal company.
His next step was to approach Congress for a land grant. Harris knew that selling timber from the 200,000 acres of gifted land would go a long way towards raising funds for the canal project and would also encourage more wealthy investors in the project.
It was an uphill battle. Harris didn’t exactly get a warm reception at the House of Representatives in 1865, being told by Wisconsin Representative Walter McIndoe that 200,000 acres of Wisconsin timber was “worth more than a million dollars.” Harris was warned not to ask for more than 50,000 acres.
Despite these warnings, Harris pushed forward, eventually finding sponsors at the Senate who drafted a bill for the 200,000-acre grant, which was passed by the Senate, but failed in the House by a meager two votes.
Undaunted, Harris returned to Washington D.C. the following year to petition Congress yet again, and this time the bill passed and was approved by President Andrew Johnson on April 10, 1866. The following year, with his term in the Wisconsin State Senate finished, and having acquired both the charter and the land grant, Harris went back to his supporters to establish the canal company. At this point Harris was confident that, “the hardest part of my labors were over” and that work would promptly begin on the canal.
But his confidence didn’t last long. During a trip to New York in 1868 to meet with the president and vice-president of the canal company, William B. Ogden and Alexander Mitchell, respectively, Harris was told a mere 200,000 acre land grant wasn’t enough land to induce investors to join the canal company and that furthermore the land Congress had already granted was “worthless.” They suggested that Harris go back to Congress to ask for more land and only then could they proceed with the canal project.
Despite his disappointment in Ogden and Mitchell, Harris did return to Washington D.C. and spent the next several years lobbying for more land during each session of Congress from 1868 to 1873—to no avail. During this time the original land grant expired twice, but Harris managed to get the grant renewed by Congress both times, “after much stress and anxiety.”
Unfortunately it was at this time the canal project was also dealt another blow—Congress voted to abolish the policy of issuing any future land grants.
Harris himself described the situation in the Expositor Independent in 1879:
And so he did. In the early 1870s, Harris was working as secretary for Wisconsin Representative Philetus Sawyer in Washington D.C., when he decided to try a new plan. Sawyer was drafting a bill to improve Wisconsin’s rivers and harbors and Harris suggested adding an item for surveying both the portage for a canal route and also the Bay of Sturgeon Bay with the intent of establishing a harbor of refuge there. Harris knew that if Congress would appropriate funds to build a harbor of refuge at Sturgeon Bay, it would be as valuable to canal development as a second land grant would have been.
Finally success! The survey was approved by Congress, and consequently, also the funds to establish the harbor of refuge.
But the canal project continued to be plagued by setbacks. A full quarter of the 200,000 land grant was deemed unusable—lumber thieves had stripped parts of the land bare and the “great fire” of 1871 had also decimated much of the land. Eventually a few thieves were made to pay “trespass funds” of $40,000 and Congress also approved $40,000 for the canal company as reimbursement for fire damage.
By May 1872, the canal company investors finally had the confidence to add $75,000 to the project, and on July 8, 1872, the first shovelfuls of sand were removed from the future canal bed. Work progressed to the point where approximately one quarter of the project was completed when in fall 1873, an economic downturn halted the canal progress yet again.
During the next three years work on the canal came to a virtual standstill. It was during this time that the people of Sturgeon Bay became restless. Harris was accused of raising funds and pocketing the money. A rival newspaper was established in Door County with many scathing reports of fraud by Harris. Three separate investigations of the canal company were undertaken, but each time the canal company and Harris were found innocent.
Eventually the economy began to improve and funds were again available to continue working on the canal. On June 28, 1877, the waters of Green Bay rushed together with the water of Lake Michigan. A few days later, on July 4th, Sturgeon Bay hosted a major celebration, “baptizing” the canal which was attended by many of the dignitaries who helped make it possible, Representative Sawyer and Wisconsin Governor William E. Smith. But according to Holand’s History of Door County, the canal was completed, “merely in the rough.”
It would take another four years of excavation until the canal was wide enough to allow large vessels to pass through. By 1882, the canal was deemed complete and fully operational at 100 feet wide, 7,400 feet long, 22 feet wide. The cost was almost $300,000.
For Harris, the canal’s champion, it was a 22-year endeavor. His 1889 obituary stated that the canal project was, “his life’s work” and that he had spent “his best years in accomplishing what hundreds, yes thousands, affirmed and re-affirmed could never be done.”